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Poaching, poverty and empowerment through conservation – Guest post by Maasai warrior Philip Ole Senteria

This week I am truly honoured to share the words of Maasai warrior Philip Ole Senteria. Philip provides an authentic perspective of living in a community residing alongside wild and often dangerous animals, and how — despite the poverty in these areas and the threat that poachers bring to both the local wildlife and the local community —  wildlife conservation (teamed with hard work, education and some brightly coloured beads) can empower the Maasai people.

Tree-planting community projects

There is a continued, rapid loss of biodiversity and deterioration of mega fauna worldwide. Poaching leads the list of environmental crisis accelerators; that is being witnessed; a menace that has faced a strong battle, but continues to plunge the local (and global) wildlife into extinction.

Although every effort has been put to action to stop it, the heinous act is still very much alive — particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Poverty is undeniably one of the main reasons why the war against poaching hasn’t succeeded yet. And unless the locally indigenous communities are fully involved in conservation, the world risks losing the small remaining rhino, elephant population among other wildlife endangered.

The importance of indigenous people

There are approximately 370 million indigenous people worldwide. They make up just 5% of the global population, but they hold nearly 25% of the world’s lands and waters, representing 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This shows that these communities have a very close contact with the natural resources that need to be protected. It’s worth noting that, with this close connection, the natural world is then central to the human rights of the indigenous peoples as well as their economic, spiritual, physical and cultural well-being.

Indigenous peoples directly manage the biodiversity setting that is vital for both their survival and their respect of nature. The two are deeply entwined.

But it comes with complex challenges: the development of natural resources and the climate change are threatening the environments on which their livelihoods and cultures depend.

Is poverty a factor?

Poverty impedes conservation because poaching and environmental degradation is often pursued by the poor in short-sighted ways.

When people attain stabilised livelihoods, they are more likely to accept conservation policies. Addressing poverty is therefore a means of directly or indirectly promoting conservation.

Conservationists therefore have to find a more holistic approach that lays the foundation for the long-term success of protecting wildlife, especially elephants, rhinos, etc. here in Kenya.

Oloimugi Maasai Cultural Village

Two years ago I started the Oloimugi Maasai Village project. The main aim was to bring our Maasai community together for the purpose of having a conversation around conservation.

We live in a region very rich with wildlife, but are constantly at threat from poaching and hunting, human-wildlife conflict, etc. Poverty, lack of social amenities — for example: health; schools; general economic instability; are some of the factors contributing to the issues that we face as we try to fulfil a role as guardians of wildlife.

The Village serves as a cultural promotion centre, seeking empowerment and education through and about conservationIncome generated from cultural/wildlife tourism from guests visiting us is used to grow trees, construct gabions to stop soil erosion and to support the community.

The main focus of all this, however, is the BEADWORK project which is part of our initiative to tap into the potential of the Maasai women.

Beadwork offers an important  opportunity to Maasai women. Traditionally, they are uneducated, married at the age of 13, and completely financially reliant on the men or government aid. Their skills with beadwork are a chance for self-sufficiency.

The group, Olkiripa women, which was started as part of the Oloimugi Maasai Project, consists of 25 Maasai women who hand-make all of the beaded items we sell.

This is their primary source of income, and as a group they support their families.

Bead product purchases help these women and their families break a pattern of poverty. We believe that the spectacular beadwork that the women make can be sold to make enough money to feed their families, educate children and invest in conservation activities.

The main challenges we are facing is a lack of marketing and exposure, as well networking to reach the right, relevant markets, individuals and brands. We really hope to get help with this very crucial pillar of our ‘holistic conservation’ foundation laying.

There is a wide range of items they make, such as necklaces, bracelets, beaded dog collars, belts, etc.

In conclusion, empowerment of local communities creates a very suitable, friendly environment for wildlife as there is generally decreased competition for resources. Many global environmental problems are caused by human factors. Poaching can only be ended with goodwill from an empowered society taking in consideration that wildlife depend on 80% of community land for survival.

 

If you would like to support the Oloimugi Maasai Village’s BEADWORK project by purchasing an item, please visit: http://shop.oloimugimaasai.org.

Philip Ole Senteria is a 24-year-old Maasai warrior from Laikipia, Kenya. He is a Law student with a passion for wildlife conservation, eco-tourism, culture and community work. He is the founder of the Oloimugi Maasai Village — a project based on cultural preservation, conservation and community empowerment. The village focuses of teaching the community about environmental issues, culture promotion and empowerment.

The BEADWORK project  aims to empower women through an eco-friendly, economic activity and a pillar of conserving Maasai culture. Philip is looking for opportunities to learn more about marketing and networking to further his work with the Oloimugi Maasai Village. If you think you can help, please fill out the contact form here.

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Top 5 ways to reduce plastic waste!

Following on from my #NoWasteNovember blog post, for which I took part in a brilliant campaign by Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots programme to reduce the amount of plastic waste I dispose of, I’ve received some great feedback from my blog readers asking for more information and suggestions for reducing plastic waste.

plastic bottles collected up

My #NoWasteNovember pledge was to use washable nappies, liners and pads with my new baby daughter — and almost four months in, it’s actually been an easy pledge to stick to, thanks to my early shopping spree with Babi Pur!

In fact, I’ve been so inspired with the ease and lack of fuss it’s caused, that I’m even investigating eco-friendly feminine hygiene products — and the wonderful Eco Fluffy Mama is my go-to guru for all things eco period-related. For any one interested, she has some great reviews available to read here. But for my non-gender-specific, non-parent-specific tips to living a greener lifestyle, check out my top 5 easy ways to reduce plastic waste below…

1.  Swap plastic straws for reusable steel

Steel straws

By now we’ve all heard the horror stories of plastic making it’s way into the sea — 8 million tonnes of it a year, in fact, is dumped into our oceans — and there are some horrifying videos online of how some of this impacts our planet’s wildlife. From seabird autopsies that reveal stomachs full of coloured fragments of the stuff, to a sea turtle struggling and writhing in pain as a plastic straw is pulled from its nostril; the very real, very emotive reasons to make a change are clear — which is why I love these stainless steel reusable straws.

Suitable for hot or cold beverages, these straws are available to order from ecostrawz and come with a wire cleaning brush so that you can use them over and over again. In some parts of the ocean it’s estimated that there are over half a million pieces of plastic for every square kilometre, so even reusable plastic straws are a no-go for me!

2. Bamboo toothbrushes

bamboo toothbrushes

One billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away each year in the United States alone! That’s more than 22 million kilograms annually!

As plastics breakdown into micro plastics, they cause toxins to build up throughout the food chain — which ultimately contaminate the milk of marine mammals at the top of the food chain. Sometimes this is so bad, the contaminated milk kills the young.

Plastic toothbrushes are a major culprit in ocean plastic waste, so making the change to an eco-friendly bamboo brush is a great way to reduce the number of plastic toothbrushes we’re estimated to throw away in our lifetimes (300 approximately). The Giving Brush are giving away their rainbow-themed brush for FREE right now, so there’s no reason not to jump onboard with this one!

3. 100% Compostable phone case

compostable phone case

A new favourite find of mine — eco-friendly phone cases! How many of us hold a phone case in our hands every single day? I’m willing to bet that most people in the western world carry one of these around without even thinking about it! I know it certainly hadn’t occurred to me that this is just another way that we’re buying, using and disposing of plastic, which is why I think it’s such a great idea!

These particular cases are 100% compostable and free from plastic packaging! Plus a donation is made from each sale to various environmental initiatives. Pela currently have a buy one get one half price sale on too.

4. Reusable drinks bottle

stainless steel water bottle

Glass or stainless steel are my top choice in material for reusable water bottles. 16 million plastic bottles go un-recycled in the UK every day, choking our rivers and ultimately destroying ocean habitats for our marine life.

Even reusable plastic bottles are likely to end up being disposed of eventually, and after reading about the risks of some reusable plastic bottles containing the controversial chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) – which is thought to interfere with sex hormones — I personally choose to stick with stainless steel! Thehut.com currently have a 3 for £20 deal on.

5. Plastic bottle pick-up (and join Lily’s Global Clean-Up Day!)

Lily's global clean up day

The photograph I’ve used at the top of this blog post shows the plastic bottles I picked up on a short 15-minute or so walk to my local shops with my daughter. The amount of plastic bottles that litter our streets, fields and rivers genuinely still surprises me!

Luckily, there are some plastic pollution heroes out there like nine-year old Lily, who are willing to go that extra mile. Lily is a Child Ambassador for HOW Global and a Youth Ambassador for Plastic Pollution Coalition and is this year dedicating her birthday as a day for everyone to pick-up plastic from the environment!

#lilysglobalcleanupday will take place on 18 April, and Lilly has challenged everyone to pick-up plastic on this day to help make the world a better, safer place. What an amazing wish for a 10th birthday! See her Twitter page @lilyspickup for the full video. Why wait though? Pick up some plastic and tweet today!

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Gorillas in the wild; and how to help them stay that way! — Guest post by Dan Richardson

Last month saw the exciting announcement that the Remembering Wildlife book series, responsible for the highly acclaimed Remembering Elephants and Remembering Rhinos titles, will be dedicating this year’s follow up book to Great apes. To date, the Remembering Wildlife series has raised more than £275,000 for the conservation of its highlighted species. Here, Ambassador to the book series, Dan Richardson, talks about his recent trip to Africa with Remembering Wildlife Founder Margot Raggett; his thoughts on the profound experience of seeing great apes in the wild and shares some of his incredible photographs from the encounters.

Gorilla eyes, Rwanda, photo by Dan Richardson

Rwanda and her people are truly astounding. Apart from the incredible wildlife, particularly the gorillas — which were the primary reason for being there — it’s a country that’s utterly unique in Africa.

The progressiveness would be quite an achievement for any country anywhere in the world, but for one with a recent history as dark as Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, it’s absolutely remarkable.

There’s a lot I need to learn about the Rwanda and how they’ve come from such tragedy to where they are today, but it’s certainly a fascinating country, and one I’ll definitely be visiting again.

Great ape species are in terrible trouble in many places, but they aren’t perhaps as iconic or immediately obvious as the likes of elephant, rhino and lion.

I travelled to Africa with Margot Raggett, Founder of Remembering Wildlife to close the loop on some rhino conservation projects that had been funded through the Remembering Rhinos book, via the Born Free Foundation.

That was the retrospective part of the trip, and then looking ahead, we made plans to encounter some great apes, including gorillas, in the wild.

I’m an ambassador for Margot’s wonderful series of books. Great apes being the next in the series (following Remembering Rhinos and Remembering Elephants. It’s a really fantastic idea and it emphasises Margot’s determination to put attention where it’s needed, where it might not automatically go.

What Margot achieves with her books, in terms of raising both funds and awareness, is exemplary and invaluable. The prestigiousness of the campaign and the traction it has already gained in the conservation world is indicative of that.

My role is basically to use whatever platform I have to shine a little more light on Margot’s extraordinary work and it is such a great honour to do that and to be involved with the Remembering Wildlife series in any way.

Remembering Great Apes - cover photo by Nelis Wolmarans

Remembering Great Apes – Cover photo by Nelis Wolmarans

The first time I saw great apes in the wild was in Tanzania, just a few days before going to Rwanda. Specifically, I was at an unimaginably beautiful lodge called Greystoke Mahale in the Mahale Mountains National Park to see chimpanzees. This is a genuinely wild and completely isolated place on the edge of Lake Tanganyika. It’s like going back in time. No roads, no people, nothing but pure, unadulterated nature.

The trek to get to see chimps was a fairly arduous one — apparently about two hours or so of steep incline — but I was so gripped by the surroundings that it went pretty quickly. There’s no guarantee of actually reaching or seeing them, and that’s exactly as it should be. But the feeling upon first setting sight, and as it turned out, hearing, them was sheer elation.

There’s something surreally beautiful about being so far out there in totally unspoiled nature and coming across a family of these incredible, sentient creatures living wild and free. It’s all added to massively by the fact that they look right back, I mean really look at you. It’s quite extraordinary.

With the chimpanzees all visitors are required to wear a surgical mask, to protect the chimps from our illnesses as opposed to the other way around.

There are also rules relating to the distance that must be maintained. This varies from place to place and species to species but whatever it is, the guides keep a close eye on that and instruct you to move back if necessary.

Of course the apes don’t know or care about the rules so every once in a while a very close encounter can happen…as was the case with me with both chimps and gorillas.

They are free to roam far and wide, and they do. Unsurprisingly they can move significantly faster and more efficiently than we humans, so it’s good to know any encounter is always on their terms to that extent.

Observing these wonderful animals is done very respectfully by keeping groups small and limiting time with the animals to a maximum of one hour a day — that’s if you even find them in the first place.

Even at the required distance though, seeing these creatures in their natural habitat and having the privilege of spending a little time with them is absolutely unforgettable. I was moved to tears by it more than once.

*****

Great apes in captivity

I’m vehemently against any captivity and have been since long before seeing gorillas, or any other species, in the wild. Despite what some establishments claim about creating an environment as close to natural as possible, this is simply never achieved.

Not that it should be necessary, but when you spend a bit of time in the mountain forests and experience the vastness first-hand, seeing the ability these animals have to move freely over such huge distances, you understand in no uncertain terms just how far off the mark captivity really is, how cruel it is. It’s not comparable. Not remotely.

Gorilla mother and baby photographed in the wild in Rwanda, how it should be.

There are a very limited number of exceptions where, for example, a certain animal may be in some form of captivity for genuinely unavoidable reasons. Animals born into and rescued from a ‘life’ in the circus, for instance. An animal like that will either end up in a sanctuary or be put to sleep because release into the wild simply isn’t an option for an animal that has no idea how to be wild.

In those instances it has to be about the welfare of the animal before anything else, and it’s easy to tell the difference. A true sanctuary doesn’t involve a stream of gawping tourists with flash cameras.

In the case of gorillas, it’s glaringly obvious that zoos in cities around the world don’t hold gorillas captive in the name of sanctuary or conservation. They do so because they draw a crowd and help the zoo to turn a profit.

The outdated ‘education’ argument also falls flat.

We live in a world of high definition TV’s and award-winning, ground-breaking documentaries, any of which will teach you more about the natural behaviour of an animal than any zoo could ever do, just as you wouldn’t learn much about natural human behaviour by observing a person confined to a prison cell.

Whether it’s gorillas we’re talking about or any other species, it seems to me that at some point in history we humans got so caught up with what we could do that we stopped asking ourselves whether we should.

I just hope with all my heart, for the sake of the countless animals suffering such a miserable fate, that humans evolve beyond the unthinkable selfishness of captivity.

Similarly to the other titles in the series, the production of the Remembering Great Apes book will be funded by a Kickstarter campaign: Click here to make a pledge

 

Dan Richardson

Dan Richardson is an actor, wildlife activist and proud vegan. A Patron of Born Free Foundation and Voices For Asian Elephants Society and an Ambassador for International Aid for the Protection & Welfare of Animals (IAPWA), Angels For The Innocent and Remembering Wildlife; Dan is a prolific animal advocate and passionate fundraiser for charities supporting animals both wild and domestic. Follow his incredible work online here.

Uniting some of the world’s best wildlife photographers to raise funds for the protection of these species in the wild; this book will represent chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos and will be guest edited by great ape expert Ian Redmond OBE

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Gordon Buchanan: Animals, cameras and family values

The groundbreaking new series Animals With Cameras is back on our screens for its second instalment, and as I read through social media reactions to this innovative style of natural history filmmaking (for those who have yet to watch, species of animals — including chimps, penguins, meerkats and cheetahs — are fitted with cameras to record unique footage of their hidden lives); it seems a good time to share some of series host Gordon Buchanan‘s thoughts on his 25 years of filming wildlife.

“I’m going to end up losing my job to these guys,” Gordon joked as he showed an early preview clip of the series to the audience of his Animal Families and Me tour on its final night.

Concluding the 19-date tour in London, the audience at the Royal Geographical Society were treated to a whistle-stop tour of Gordon’s filmmaking career and the amazing animals he’s shared it with.

Lily the black bear from 2011’s series Bear Family and Me was the first of these animals that audiences were reacquainted with. As an inexperienced mother, Lily abandoned her daughter Hope, but touchingly the pair reunited later in the year.

Of course the Animal Family and Me series are well-known for exploring the sociology and complex relationships of animals, but it certainly added flavour to hear of Gordon’s own relationship (and misconceptions) of the black bears.

“When I first saw the bears — these big animals coming towards you in the forest — I was terrified.” He spoke of arriving in Minnesota to film the series and joining biologist Lynn Rogers, who is known for his habituated relationships with wild black bears.

Gordon Buchanan with bear

Gordon Buchanan with Lily the black bear

“Lynn explained that the black bears were happy with their ‘partnership’ with humans, but that doesn’t really help when one of these animals first comes up and rests its huge paws and head on your shoulders for the first time.”

Perhaps the most astonishing story then, was how deepening his understanding of these bears lead to the utter trust that later becomes evident in his photographs and videos. So much so, that his (then) young children were able to encounter the bears themselves, under careful supervision (especially from a nervous Mrs Buchanan — as his footage showed!).

One of the recurring themes of the evening was understanding just how vulnerable wildlife is — despite the great size and power of many of the species mentioned — and how fragile their environments are.

I was impressed at the time taken to mention the fearless hard work of the rangers putting their lives on the line to protect elephants and other species from poaching (one very poignant image Gordon shared was a tribute to the most recently killed rangers) and at the way he championed the work of The David Sheldrick Trust, who rescue and raise orphaned elephants and other animals in Kenya.

Gordon shares an image of Satao 2’s super tusks.

One of the elephants that left an impression as huge as his size was Satao 2, featured in the Elephant Family and Me series. Satao 2 was killed by poachers in March 2017, just a few months after the series first aired, due to his prized super tusks (shown above).

“Satao should have had no worries [in the wild], he was a ‘supertusker’. But because of his teeth, his ivory, he was more vulnerable than much smaller elephants.”

As with the new series, Animals with Cameras, much of the footage attained during Gordon Buchanan’s impressive career as a wildlife cameraman was the first of its kind.

“We were dropped off on the tundra to study Artic wolves, and just sort of left there on this vast, isolated landscape,” he reminisced of the series Snow Wolf Family and Me. “No one’s ever studied wolves in the Artic that late in the year, other than us, because of the weather,” Gordon explained.

“Even our back-up plans had risks. But we were able to do it because the weather in the Artic is changing.”

gordon buchanan talks about arctic wolves

Artic wolf Scruffy becomes acquainted with the BBC team

As we move towards understanding these animals better, I’m interested to hear the way we speak about them evolve. So I was fascinated that Gordon deliberately chose to speak about the wolf ‘family‘ and not ‘pack‘; something which he purposefully acknowledged.

“It’s not a pack, it’s a family; the responsibility of each member to the pups is clear. Every member of the family would bring food to the pups — even if they were hungry themselves.”

Seeing the wolves in this way certainly challenges their long established image of folklore villains. I get the impression that dispelling this misconception was one of Gordon’s aims.

He explained to the Royal Geographical Society audience that in observing artic wolves he learned that there was something ‘incredibly wolf-like about us‘. Discovering these such parallels between animals and humans was touched upon again when he spoke of the Grauer’s gorillas he encountered in Gorilla Family and Me.

Gordon and team filming silverback Mugaruka for Gorilla Family and Me.

“You couldn’t help but look at them and see something of ourselves in them,” he explained. “Mugaruka and Chimanuka [the silverback stars of the series] are like the Gallagher brothers of the gorilla world,” he joked. “Although they grew up together, they grew apart”.

It was great to hear Gordon Buchanan cite the late filmmaker Alan Root as one of his biggest influencers and inspirations (first proclaiming that he is deliberately not going to say Sir David Attenborough, as his merits are unquestionable and there’s a value in recognising some of the other amazing wildlife filmmakers out there).

As well as learning a little bit more about each of these endearing animal characters, the sense of needing to protect and conserve them was strong. If there’s one thing that natural history filmmaking is teaching us today, it’s that it’s not enough to simply fall in love with our planet’s amazing animals, we must also find ways of fighting for them.

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ConSewvation: Sewing for a cause

I have a confession to make. I’ve unashamedly become an Instagram addict lately. My new favourite social media platform, it’s perfect for sharing wildlife photography, animal art and my favourite natural history book purchases! And, as I’ve recently discovered; shopping!

From the gorgeous canvas print that now resides over my bed to the beautiful hand-drawn Lion King fan art I’ve placed in my daughter‘s Disney-themed nursery, I’ve discovered a fantastic marketplace of individuals and Etsy shops offering unique gifts and animal-themed goodies that I just can’t get enough of. Enter; ConSewvation.

consewvation-elephant-design-turquoise-in-the-garden

After discovering these beautiful one-of-a-kind crocheted elephants on Instagram, I fell in love with both the products and the purpose of ConSewvation.

Motivated by a mission to make these cute cuddly elephants — sold for use as ornaments or children’s toys — to raise funds for her dream of working in the field of conservation; creator Sasha Cole has not only got some serious sewing talents, but an undeniable passion for wildlife that shines through in her craft.

consewvation-elephant-design-purple-white-feet

“I want to go back to Cambodia and work in Phnom Tamao Wildlife Centre,” Sasha tells me. “I did a behind the scenes tour there last year and fell in love with the place. It takes care of animals rescued from cruel captive situations and rescues those that have had attempts on them to be smuggled out of the country. Any animals that can be released back into the wild, they do.”

“I fed lucky the elephant when I was there, so she is my idea behind the elephants.”

consewvation-elephant-design-red-in-flower-bed

Each elephant is unique (Sasha says she never makes the same thing twice!) and I adore the attention to detail. With bespoke characteristics (such as the passport stamp material in the ears of her latest creation, seen below), they really do make for a perfect gift with a personal touch.

consewvation elephant pale yellow design with passport stamps in ears

A self-declared one-woman handicraft shop, Sasha’s recent trip to Cambodia has also ignited her desire to study Zoology as part of an online course by United for Wildlife.

“I have put all of my efforts into sewing to raise funds for my re-training in Zoology and Conservation. Every penny you spend goes back into ConSewvation and helping me to pursue my dream of saving those who can’t speak for themselves,” she says.

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center houses the wildlife conservation efforts of Wildlife Alliance; a leading organisation in the direct protection of forests and wildlife in tropical Asia.

As well as caring for and rehabilitating animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, Wildlife Alliance delivers a comprehensive approach for tropical rainforest protection through direct on-the-ground interventions with government rangers and local communities — directly addressing the causes of deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade.

“We build rangers’ professional capacity and provide full support for their livelihoods. This enables them to focus completely on their duties to take strong action and creates a culture of Zero Tolerance for Corruption,” they state.

consewvation-elephant-design-baby-blue-elephants-in-ears

A quick read of Consewvation’s blog, and it’s entirely evident why Lucky the elephant was the inspiration behind this lovely Etsy shop: “On the car journey to the centre we were handed a book full of heart-wrenching stories of the animals we were to meet later in the day. First up we had Lucky, one of the world’s most charming and trusting elephants,” she recounts of her time Phnom Tamao. “Being able to get up close with her in person, even feeding her directly into her mouth, made me wonder why anyone would want to hurt such gentle giants.”

With such a compassionate creator and such care in their creation, I chose the little yellow elephant with cute elephant and rainbow details in its ears as the ele that would mark my first Etsy purchase. Luckily, my daughter loves it as much as I do.Baby-Ada-And-consewvation-elephant-design-yellowWe named the little guy ‘Sunshine‘ (as this little bright yellow elephant will bring rainbows to the nursery on rainy days), and to be safe around its small parts (ConSewvation recommends designs are best for ages 3 and up), he’ll be waiting on the shelf for when my little girl is old enough to hear about where this little elephant came from and how he’s helped!

Sasha Cole ConSewvation with elephantFollow ConSewvation’s makes here:
Instagram: @consewvation
Facebook: /ConSewvation
Twitter: @consewvation

Or follow her blog for updates on her studies, creations and fundraising!

Blog: https://consewvation.wixsite.com

I’m sure that Lucky will bring you luck with your fundraising, Sasha!

 

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Tania Esteban chats about her role as a Digital Researcher for BBC’s Big Cats, Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II

Tania Esteban behind the camera

I’m sure that, like me, Thursdays for many of my blog readers have meant one thing this January — Big Cats!

The BBC’s natural history programming has started 2018 on a high, with this exciting new series exploring the secret lives of wild cats. This past Tuesday viewers were treated to a rare insight into an international project that’s battling to bring the Iberian lynx back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding and improving wild habitats.

I was fortunate enough to chat to Tania Esteban (whose work can be discovered at TRE Productions) about her work behind the scenes on the series, which involved researching, setting up shoots, storyboarding, and translating for the crew (Tania credits being bilingual as major advantage in securing her role on the project).

Listen to the full interview on the SoundCloud link below.

After discovering her film A Lion’s Tale through Twitter back in 2016 (it featured on my Top 5 ways to beat Blue Monday post in January 2017), I was incredibly excited to chat to Tania about the film; her first big steps into her career in documentary-making; and the amazing work she’s done with the BBC since completing her Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking…

Kate: ‘Big Cats’ was your first project for the BBC, what did you do for the series?

Tania: It was my first foray into the BBC because it was work experience. At the time I was editing A Lion’s Tale, which was good timing, so I applied for the BBC work experience pool. I thought; “I’ll just apply and see if I get it” — it’s usually quite tricky because so many people apply and I knew I may or may not get it. I was at university when I got the call and they said: “We’d love to do a quick interview with you if you’d like to do work experience”, and of course I said; “yeah, I’d love to!”

The reason why was mainly because I could speak Spanish and they sent me to Spain to do a recce of where they were going to film the Iberian lynx for the third episode, on the conservation element of it. So I was very excited because this was my dream project — I wish I could have worked on it for longer. But I spent a month and a half working on it; doing lots of research and getting to learn the ropes of production. We’d just learnt everything on the [Masters] course, so it was fresh in our minds and a good chance to see whether I could do this in the real world of work.

What did the work experience involve?

I helped the main researcher and assistant producer — the lovely Sara [Douglas]. We went out to Spain and actually flew into my home province — which was hilarious; I told the team that I could show them all the best tapas bars. I did a little bit of filming on an Osmo [a type of handheld camera] — so that’s kind of field notes and getting a general scope of the area so that the producer can look and think ‘right, we’re going to film here and we’d like to do this…”.

I did a lot of translating; liaising with the scientist and finding out key facts that would feature heavily in the story. It was my job to work around the language barrier and make them feel comfortable with the team and ask questions about where we could place the cameras and gain their trust — which I love doing, because I love talking to people. 

BBC big cats

What did you enjoy most about working on Big Cats?

I really enjoyed finding pure science, learning how to set up shoots and the storytelling element and thinking about different camera angles and story boards to help the production.

It was very high security and we had to put protective clothes on so we didn’t spread any disease to the animals and they hosed us down, because they’re critically endangered these lynx. And they’re so beautiful; very small animals. I’d never seen them before so that was very exciting. 

It was really inspiring for me actually, because I never realised how many passionate conservationists there are in Spain. I was quite blinded to that in a way because I’d grown up there, but I’d never really had the opportunity to meet any of these people, such as Miguel who features on the programme.

The conservation work is incredible and I’m very glad that — from the perspective of a half Spanish woman — the conservation work that the team is doing is now coming out and being seen. It was brilliant to see that and to start my BBC role and my work as a researcher on a programme that features big cats — as I was obsessed with big cats at that time, after working on my film ‘A Lion’s Tale’.

What’s it like behind the scenes? Did you learn things that weren’t in the final programme? 

Yes. You see all these things behind the scenes and you’ve got your team there; so you find out all of this knowledge and information that embellishes a sequence. And even if that doesn’t make the final cut, you still have that knowledge with you and you still have that bond that you’ve made with these people. I think it’s very important to keep up those relationships where ever you travel in the world, because you never know.

Like the connections you made during the production of A Lion’s Tale; the likes of Ian Redmond, Virginia McKenna and Will Travers. How did that come about and where did you get the idea for the film?

I was studying the Wildlife Filmmaking MA course in Bristol after completing my Zoology course. I’d know for so many years that I wanted to do this particular MA course; since I was 14 and I saw it advertised. So I planned all my A Levels and GCSEs to get to Bristol and do this course. So when I got it I was ecstatic! And as part of our final year projects we had to choose a story we were passionate about; I wasn’t too sure what that would be — I knew I really liked big cats, but wasn’t sure what the story would be. Then Ian Redmond came in [to the university] and gave an inspiration talk — as always. He was talking about vEcotourism and he said this one sentence — that it was the 50th anniversary since the Born Free film was made and I went; “that’s the story!”

A Lions Tale film poster

Click the image to watch A Lion’s Tale

How did you get to work on the filmmaking side?

I’d recently read how lions had declined by nearly 70% over 20 years, and it’s just terrible when you think about how their numbers have plummeted. People always think that lions are so numerous, and they’re really not anymore — so I thought that’s the connection. So I went up to Ian [Redmond] and said “I’m a huge fan and I’ve got this idea for a film I’d like to make with Born Free; could you maybe put me in touch with Will Travers and Virginia McKenna if they’d be interested. And that really got the ball rolling and I got in touch with Will. Will was absolutely incredible — and I’m such a huge fan of his, so I was terrified of meeting him — and of course Virginia has always been such a hero of mine; as I’m sure she is of yours, and many people. She’s got this incredible presence. I even did a presentation about her when I was at school; I was 10 years old and we had to talk about our biggest heroes, and I chose her.

Everyone who I’ve spoken to who’s met Virginia McKenna has said she has such a positive air about her, and she’s so passionate and she ‘does’. She’s an activist — she acts upon her word.

virginia mckenna at home

Virginia McKenna portrait by Tania Esteban

So once the ball was rolling, I spent six months setting up the shoot and liaising with them constantly and then doing all the storyboards, doing all the research; talking to Victor — who’s one of the rangers out in the Kenyan Born Free offices — and then crowd-funded it. It was just a bizarre, really incredible year of planning this dream shoot and I thought: “right, I’ve got 10 days to actually shoot it, just a tiny percentage of a production.”

Actually getting out there was incredible because I got to fulfil a childhood dream of filming a story about one of my absolute heroes and an animal that’s very dear to my heart.

A Lion's Tale film poster

When I started editing it, I want the piece to be very much a memoir of Born Free and of Virginia McKenna as well, because she has dedicated her whole life to conserving wildlife. And her son [Will] is one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met. He never stops. He’s seriously incredible.

What was it like going to the 2016 ivory burn in Kenya for the film — to witness the biggest ever stockpile of ivory to be destroyed?

That was something that I was unsure as to whether it would come off. A lot of people asked “what’s the connection?” and I said “well, there is a connection”, at the very end — there was a different ending that I didn’t use, it’s a personal copy that I keep — it’s Virginia McKenna saying: “it’s not just about elephants and lions; it’s about the whole eco-system; it’s about the whole of nature — protecting it. It got me really emotional actually.

Being at the ivory burn was one of the most overwhelming, powerful things I’ve ever filmed. You’re so focussed as a camerawoman, thinking: “I’ve got to get this shot, and I’ve got to get that shot — I’ve got to get the president as he comes out to light the ivory, and I’ve got to roam around with my gimbal to try and get some of the shots of the rangers and the burning flames…” and then you look up and see this 50-tonne pile of ivory going up in flames. It was the smell actually, more than anything and you could hear the ivory crackling because bits of it were hollow — it was so powerful.

Tania Esteban film the 2016 Kenyan ivory burn

That’s why in the film I used Virginia’s voice, Will’s voice and Victor’s in the film, to narrate it. I wanted them to give a voice to all those people who had been working together to reach this moment. It’s all about emotion in the storytelling. That’s what I tell a lot of people — especially in conservation — because nobody wants to be lectured anymore. You’ve got to get them emotionally or visually arresting images to try and do these amazing people justice.

Just being there was amazing and I’m so grateful to Ian and Will and Virginia for giving me that opportunity to make a dream film.

Amazing! I know you’ve become a bit of a drone specialist; how has that come about?

Drones are amazing! I got started with them about 2 years ago when I saw a video on Vimeo that someone shot in Scotland on a Phantom 2 — a very old type of drone — and I just thought “god, it really does open up a whole new world!”. It was only then that it was beginning to get more commercial and anyone from the general public could start to buy consumer drones and give it a go. So I bought a secondhand one to see if I could actually fly it before I start taking it seriously — and it was terrible, the drone was quite terrible, but if you can fly a bad drone and a smaller one, then you don’t have to worry about the bigger ones.

I remember flying a drone over my house in Spain, and the mountains there have always inspired me, so just to see it from above and being able to take pictures was incredible — a whole new perspective. And that’s where it all started really. I realised it could add a whole new perspective to my storytelling. 

Tania Esteban holds a drone camera

I was at the BBC at the time and I thought: yes, I’m going to do this. It’s quite a lot of money, it costs quite a few thousand pounds to train yourself to get the license and get qualified, but I knew that it would perhaps open up more opportunities for me to go out on location and also to enhance my own videography and film work.

The conservation element of it is quite interesting, because you can use drones for aerial surveying — such as for monitoring orang-utan nests and tree distribution and species. In the forest it was incredible to pan up the trees that just go on and on, and it gives a good indication of the health of the forest when you see ferns on the trees, etc. And I’m always concerned about the welfare of the animals I’m filming — when I filmed elephants in the forest I didn’t get anywhere near them. So it’s exciting; you’ve got small drones like the Spark, which you can fit in your hand, and because of the size of it, the motors don’t make as much noise. That’s very exciting for wildlife filmmakers.

I recently went to Iceland, which is the most drone-able country — the way the landscape changes is like turning the pages of a children’s story book — and the new series I’m working on now heavily features a lot of drone work, so I’m going off to Canada very soon to go fly my drone. My first paid internal gig with my drone.

Exciting! And it’s always important to think about the welfare of the animals. So, tell me about your work on Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. What did you do for them?

That came about two months after I finished work experience on Big Cats and I’d finished editing A Lion’s Tale. The film came out at the start of November and at the end of November the BBC got in touch and said “would you like to do digital research for Planet Earth II?” Umm, yeah!

Digital research encompasses all the online aspects: all the video clips, all the behind the scenes pictures and all the social media clips and exclusives that people see online. And I was a part of the team that did all the different additional bits to support the Blue Planet II team. Which is probably why I was very active on social media about it, saying “check this out!” and all the random .gifs you probably saw about it.

Tania tweets about Blue Planet 2

We did some digital exclusives for Snapchat for America, which was interesting. My job was to look into all the archive which wasn’t used for Planet Earth, so I got to see all this amazing footage which wasn’t used on the main episodes and edit up clips for the digital platform.

We crafted these different stories with this incredible footage that wasn’t used on the series. Some of it was breath-taking, I hope its used for something in the future. 

For Blue Planet II I did the equivalent, but also got to do some additional interviews with some of the filmmakers involved and the conservationists — so that was good, as it meant I got to do some more camerawork.

I was so desperate then to move on to production — and I saw that Wild Metropolis was commissioned and so I came up with loads of story ideas and pitched it to the series producer and he said “ok, you can be one of our researchers” — which was great, as I could move on to production which was what I wanted, as it’s pure research. It’s been my favourite project to date. A lot of people don’t see these ‘mega cities’ from around the world as wildlife hotspots, but some of the stories we’ve found: wow! It’s coming out in October time, so keep an eye out for that!

What advice would you give to people who want to go into filmmaking and start a career like yours?

You have to be really passionate — and slightly crazy — about wildlife and natural history. I did the science route, zoology and I studied urban bat ecology for a year and did my dissertation on it and then I specialised in filmmaking, because that’s what I wanted to do. You don’t have to do that, I know plenty of people who didn’t, but I think it just gives you this filmic grammar if you specialise in filmmaking.

So yeah, just get out there, find your own stories — the world has opened up now, anyone can own a camera that shoots 4K now. Talk to people about their experiences, travel — it opens up a whole new perspective of your own life, as well as your career. Keep filming and get on social media. .

Tania with Victor and Born Free team after filming A Lion's Tale

Networking is about 60% of everything that we do. I also believe that if you can specialise in a certain area of wildlife filmmaking: gimbal work, long lens work, drone work, time-lapse, thermal — like you saw in Big Cats, the thermal imagery — there’s so many different niches that you can specialise in, I think you should go for it and pick one that you enjoy. I also believe in developing your own style; don’t just copy.

And always remember your roots; the reason you’re doing why your doing your filmmaking work — to make a difference, to inspire people, which is especially true of wildlife work

 

kate on conservation logo

Want to know more about wildlife filmmaking?

 

6

Finding my story: gentle nature

We all have stories that shape us. Tales of triumph, or tragedy — or both — which serve to remind us why we do what we do, or why we’ve chosen to walk down the paths that we find ourselves on.

I have been influenced and my decisions inspired by gentle nature. More than once on this blog I’ve listed the story of Suffolk photographer Julie Ward as the inspiring figure behind my decision to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve in 2008.

Exactly a decade on from my gap year trip, and two decades since Julie was murdered in the Maasai Mara in 1988, I find myself in the most unexpected situation. I always believe in ‘reading the signs’ and serendipity seems to follow me. But this feels like a perfect nod of encouragement at a time when such things are needed.

This week started with ‘Blue Monday‘, the so-called most depressing day of the year. I must admit, every year it does indeed creep up on me. Last year I took the bull by the horns and wrote a blog post; “Top 5 Ways To Beat Blue Monday” and felt suitably inspired. This year, my partner and I booked an impromptu hotel stay in Canterbury — one of my favourite cities — and packed up the car, bundled up the baby and took ourselves off.

Kate in Canterbury

No blog post was written, but some well earned family time was underway after a busy start to January spent planning a major event for our little London business.

Now, most people know I’m a massive book nerd. I read, admire and pore over as many wildlife and conservation books as possible (I’ve even started a hashtag of my recommended reads on Instagram; check out #kateonconservationreads). So it was only natural that I would go book hunting in the charity shops and secondhand bookshops of Canterbury.

Audubon's elephant book

My first purchase of the day was Audubon’s Elephant, a book that explores John James Audubon’s struggle to publish The Birds of America. This felt particularly exciting, given that I’d just written a blog post about the Audubon Society and my time with Audubon Sarasota for National Bird Day and my latest guest post came from a brilliant and enthusiastic birder.

Zafara book

The next book to catch my eye was Zarafa, the tale of the first giraffe to arrive in France. Much like the wonderful book; Jumbo by W.P. Jolly, this book promises an in-depth study of captivity management and animal transportation in the 1800s through the real life story of a much-loved, significant ‘celebrity’ animal.

Having written about Jumbo the London Zoo elephant and his shipment to America just recently, the promise of an equivalent tale of a giraffe being transported from Africa to Europe — and the trials and public reactions en route — was too good to leave sitting on the shelf.

gentle nature book 1998

The most incredible find of the trip however, and what feels like the crown jewel in my visit was walking into one of the most incredible Oxfam bookshops and casting my eyes through the ‘collectibles’ section, only to see sitting on the shelf, a hardback copy of gentle nature!

I treasure my paperback re-print from the year 2000, complete with an additional preface written by Born Free star and Co-Founder of the Born Free Foundation, Virginia McKenna. It was, after all, this copy that I won in raffle by the charity, and here that I first read about Shamwari Game Reserve‘s big cat rescue centre (including the Julie Ward Education Centre), which I would go on to volunteer at 8 years later.

But sitting on the shelf in front of me was an entirely different cover design that I was sure must be from the original 1998 print run.

“This has got to be a 1st edition” I told my partner, excitement dancing inside.

“It’s not that it’s particularly old, it’s just that you never see this kind of thing in secondhand shops. People buy these books because they care.”

I leafed through the front pages to see whether it was an original 1998 print, knowing that regardless, it would have a story attached.

It would have belonged to someone who cared about wildlife, about conservation; someone wanted to see wildlife free and not behind bars.

Someone who wanted to support the family of a young female photographer who grew up in the county next to me, and whose unsolved murder in the Masaai Mara must have touched them.

“No way!” my heart raced faster. This book has been signed!

Sitting there on the page in front of my was an message from Virginia, signed off with ‘Every good wish, Virginia McKenna‘.

To think that back in 1998, when I was eight years old, one of my biggest role models was holding this very book, sharing a special moment with its former owner. I suddenly felt a part of something.

“This is incredible.”

There were more messages and signatures inside the book, most poignantly from Julie Ward’s parents. As a new mum myself, I ran my fingers over the words penned by Julie’s mother, Jan. For Julie.

Needless to say, I purchased the book and it is instantly one of my most treasured possessions.

I have never met Julie’s parents, I wrote a letter to them once as a child; after following Julie’s story in the news. It was a letter writing task at school, and I chose to write to them, to tell them I wanted to go to Africa when I was older and take pictures, because I loved the wildlife photography I’d seen of Julie’s and because she was the only woman I’d heard of at the time who was from the part of England I was, and who had been brave enough to go on an adventure to Africa alone.

Despite her tragic story, she had shown me that young women could be brave and go on adventures, even if they’re from a rural county, rather than a big exciting city.

It was a piece of school work, so the letter was submitted to my teacher and never sent.

But to know that there’s a little bit of the spirit of Jan, and her love for Julie in this wonderful book — it feels like the message has been transferred the other way. From her pen to my eyes.

canterbury street

I said that my goal this year was to reacquaint with my passion for photography as a way to tell the stories of wildlife, to highlight the difference between freedom and captivity, and to share the tales of conservation efforts — and I feel like my spontaneous decision to get in the car and do something different this week was a well-timed reminder that I’m walking the right path.

kate on conservation logo

Learn more about Julie Ward

Want to know more about the Suffolk wildlife photographer and her legacy?

Want to know more about the Julie Ward Education Centre at Shamwari Game Reserve?

Want to know more about Born Free Foundation?